by Khaled Abou El Fadl
Source: ABC Religion and Ethics
After the military coup in Egypt, I braced for the slaughter in Palestine. Sadly, one’s worst possible fears materialized with nightmarish predictability.
It is not a coincidence that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – the two countries who pressured the White House not to trust the elected government in Egypt, and who were blatant and even rather insolent in their support of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup – are the same countries that assured Israel of their covert support if Israel would take out Hamas. But it is not this fact alone that is so telling.
After the coup in Egypt, there was an unprecedented media campaign by the state-controlled media outlets against Hamas. For the first time in Egyptian history, it seemed that the Egyptian official discourse about political Islam and Hamas was scripted, not just by Fox News and its likes, but by Netanyahu and Likud politicians. Hamas was being accused of killing Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai and of every other imaginable vice. The unimaginable happened, and the Egyptian government invited and hosted well-known Islamophobes in Cairo where they spewed their typical venom against a poor captive Egyptian audience.
Soon after the coup, the Sisi government started to repeat an Israeli narrative, which is factually indefensible – that Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, Hamas was influenced by the thought of particular orientations of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the two movements have very distinct pedagogies, objectives and methodologies.
Nevertheless, Sisi’s government, in the same way it declared that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization, has declared Hamas to be a terrorist and banned organization, and closed down its offices in Egypt, confiscated its equipment, and arrested and tortured many Palestinians associated with the organization in Egypt. Sisi also embarked on an unprecedented systematic program of finding and destroying Gaza’s tunnels connecting it to Sinai, and locked down the border with Gaza to an extent unparalleled since the blockade of Gaza.
Shortly after the coup in Egypt, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embarked upon so-called shuttle diplomacy urging European capitals to accept the Egyptian coup with the classic argument that floods Israeli media and academic discourses: democracy cannot work in Arab countries! This also happens to be an argument fervently advocated by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. At the time, many analysts contended that the banning of Hamas in Egypt and the fanatic closure of the border was a form of returning the favour to Netanyahu. However, this argument ignores the fact that, aside from any favours owed, Sisi had his own real material interests in isolating and ultimately breaking Hamas. This interest happens to be shared by a number of Arab countries, most notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
To make sense of the current crisis and to understand the trajectory of the future, one need only follow the money. Indeed, one need only reflect upon the archetypal cities of the key players involved. On the one hand, we have the city of Dubai, an archetype for indulgence and excess. Dubai has become something akin to a vulgar shrine for the idols born out of the excesses of capitalism. This is a city that bespeaks an entire philosophy – or theology, if you will – which has vested the keys to the heavens in the hands of the richest of the rich, and that often embodies hell on earth for the poorest of the poor who are trafficked as human commodities.
As telling is the archetypal city of Mecca. Saudi Arabia has turned Mecca into a luxury religious resort for the rich, in which the ethic of abstinence and self-abnegation are thoroughly defied and negated. The Kaaba no longer towers as the central landmine of the city, but instead a luxury Hilton hotel stands hovering over the haram as if the wealthy investors of Saudi Arabia are the gatekeepers of redemption and grace. Asceticism and chaste abdication of power, or even the creation of a purified eremitic space where the ego of the rich and powerful are not indulged, are all ideals that no longer exist in Mecca. Mecca has become a city where history, tradition, culture, or even virtuous norms such as abstinence are all sacrificed in favour of a stark pragmatism, functionalism and the catering to the pleasures of profit. Put differently, the Saudi government has transformed the holy cities of Mecca and Medina into extremely lucrative investment opportunities for the select elite that is powerful enough to own a share in these enterprises.
Now, we come to Cairo, which has become an archetype for insolent, vulgar and even cruel corruption. Egypt was, and remains, a haven for some of the most lucrative corruption schemes anywhere in the Middle East, if not the world. What we can call the black-economy ties between the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the elite of Egypt are numerous and extensive. There are billions of dollars invested in this black economic sector resulting from numerous corrupt practices, including the purchase of state-owned companies, real estate properties and minerals for a fraction of their market value, as well as unlawful toxic waste dumping among other things.
Importantly, the Egyptian military is a major stakeholder in this parasitical black economy. For instance, since 1979 the Egyptian military has received over 40 billion dollars in military aid from the United States, but only less than 30% of this money has actually been used for any legitimate institutional purpose. The rest of the money has been pocketed through embezzlements, bribes and misappropriations. The Egyptian military has become a massive corporate entity that exploits the cheap labour provided by impoverished and disempowered draftees from rural areas in order to operate an enormous profit-making enterprise including resorts, cinemas, gas stations as well as most other financial sectors in the country.
So, for instance, recently the Egyptian government solicited bids for a major development project in the Suez Canal worth billions of dollars. Over forty bids from domestic and foreign companies were received, but not surprisingly, the contract was awarded mostly to the Egyptian military, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The tragic irony is that a very similar project was proposed at the time of Muhammad Morsi’s presidency, but was derailed when the Egyptian military objected to it on national security grounds. It has now become clear that the military derailed the project only to grant it mostly to itself and to Saudi investors after the coup.
Moreover, Egyptian military officers make a grotesque amount of profits from Israeli tourism passing through the port of Taba, which incidentally will not admit Palestinians, but will give Israelis a free pass without even having to apply for a visa. It suffices to say that during the current war on Gaza, the only airline in the world that has not suspended its weekly flights to Ben Gurion airport is Air Sinai, a state owned corporate entity whose profits go directly to the top brass in the Egyptian military.
How is all of this related to the massacres taking place in Gaza right now? Actually, in every way! In 2003, the American neo-cons invaded Iraq with an ambitious messianic vision of imposing what they imagined would be a new world order. As far as the Middle East was concerned, this order meant that there would be final evisceration of the already comatose corpse of Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism.
But the new order did not just want to ensure that pan-Arabism would end once and for all; more importantly, with nothing short of the zeal of true fanatics, the Bush clique dreamt of re-engineering and reinventing Islam along lines that would clearly entrench what was to them the indisputable moral superiority of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In essence, for the Bush team this meant that Arabs, who for the neo-cons are indistinguishable from Muslims, must understand and accept that they have been defeated and, more importantly, that resistance is futile.
Whether one agrees or even comprehends their logic is immaterial. What is important is that they wholeheartedly believed, as many still do, that the Judeo-Christian civilization has been in conflict with the Islamic civilization, and that the source of the West’s troubles is that Muslims have not come to terms with the triumph of the West and their own defeat. The Bush administration’s outlook mirrored the Israeli outlook that it has soundly defeated the Arabs on the battlefield and that all that remains is that Arabs abandon the idea of resistance and accept whatever the victor dictates upon the vanquished.
A critical component of this dogmatic outlook is the tendency to see international law and the United Nations as an unnecessary concession by the triumphant West to whoever stands in its way. In other words, if international law and the international order deny the West its perceived entitlements, then it should simply be reinvented or ignored.
The Bush administration was amazingly dogmatic and so steeped in its own delusions that it failed to make the most basic distinctions, or even attempt to understand the complex matrix of the Middle East, let alone the Muslim world. But one clear outcome of its highly dogmatic understanding of history and social reality was not just the deprecation of normative humanitarian standards, but also the eruption of anti-Muslim religious bigotry and of prejudice against a racialized image of what a Muslim is supposed to look like.
This bigotry and racism was not invented by the Bush administration, but the irresponsible rhetoric about a confrontation with a constructed imaginary archetype of the jihadist Muslim, political Islam, or the defiant and militant Muslim removed the barriers of shame that had imposed a modicum of civility on acting openly upon this prejudice. What every person with any sense of ethical conscientiousness must understand is that the numerous human rights violations and war crimes that were committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that are taking place right now in Gaza, would not be possible without the cover provided by the epidemic of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism and bigotry.
The dichotomous logic of the Bush administration, dictating that “if you are not with us then you are against us,” forced a division in the Middle East between two clear orientations. The first could be described as countries and movements adhering to ideologies of resistance to the so-called new order in the region. This included Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas, and to a lesser extent Libya, Sudan and Algeria. The second orientation, what the United States referred to as the “moderate” countries, adhered to a policy of appeasement or acquiescence. This group included Egypt, Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Whether or not they had actual political relations with Israel, the basic geo-political outlook of these governments was to manoeuvre in the shadow of Western, and especially American, hegemony, and not to confront either the United States or its perceived proxy in the region, Israel. But the unfortunate reality is that a side effect of the policies of these governments was to further solidify the Israeli racist belief that Arabs/Muslims only understand the language of violence and force.
After 11 September 2001, conservative circles in Israel and the United States became increasingly convinced that the most important causes of agitation in the region were the Palestinian problem and radicalizing ideologies such as Islamism or Arab nationalism. But a combination of the rise of right wing forces simultaneously in Israel and the United States in the twenty-first century anchored the conviction that the Arab psychology needs to be reconditioned into accepting the idea of the futility of resistance.
Especially after the invasion of Iraq, accompanying the rise of the religious bigotry of Islamophobia was the explosion of the racist attitude that Arabs can only be reconditioned through the use of force. Put simply, it was important to hammer Arabs into waking up to the reality of the new world – a unipolar world in which the only viable option is to abandon all ideological aspirations, precisely as the Russians did. In more rarefied terms, Arabs had to be forced into realizing the unavoidability and inexorability of political realism and pragmatism, which in this situation meant becoming integrated in the globalized economy, and abandoning any ideological pretensions. Effectively, what the new world order theorists were asserting is that there are triumphant ideologies that are entitled to reap the spoils of victory, and vanquished ideologies that must accept the reality of their own futility.
By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, in the post-Bush era, it seemed that the age of ideologies was over. Both pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism were dead, and only real ideological (philosophical) orientations remaining were a form of parasitical vulgar capitalism, which in essence, legitimated a hedonistic survivalism centred around the rich getting richer and the poor – well – they should feel lucky that they get the privilege of being kept alive.
For all its inspirational promises, it quickly became clear that the Obama administration was unwilling to undo the trajectory set in motion during the Bush years. In the course of the declared war on terror, the elites of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in addition to the PLO, had acclimated themselves to the lucrative perks afforded by the new global economy in a unipolar world. Borrowing a page from the time honoured practices of colonialism, the ruling elites of these countries carved out a role acting as proxies for the interests of the West, and by extension Israel.
In this context, Egypt fully cooperated with the illegal blockade of Gaza initiated by Israel in 2007, although blockading an occupied territory and conspiring to transform it into a massive concentration camp is clearly unethical and unlawful under international law. In a most illustrative example, in 2009 the Egyptian military intelligence tortured to death Yousef Abu Zuhri, the brother of Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesperson, because Egyptian intelligence believed that he might know the hiding place of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas.
What of the elephant in the room – political Islam? Political Islam is something of a red herring because it is a label for a vastly varied and diverse phenomenon. Political Islam ranges from single-issue movements that struggled for greater rights in China or equal rights in Myanmar or Vietnam; to movements seeking some kind of autonomous rule as in the Philippines or Kashmir; to more militant struggles for self-determination such as in Chechnya; and outright psychotic violence as in al-Qa’eda. But even more confusingly, countries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, that regularly utilize religion as an integral part of protecting the legitimacy of the ruling elite, or sectarian countries such as Lebanon that distribute power shares in running the country according to a number of sectarian religious groups, are all manifesting politicized forms of religion. The role that al-Azhar played in supporting the coup in Egypt is as much a manifestation of political Islam as the Muslim Brotherhood forming a political party to compete in the political process.
But as vague and endlessly malleable the expression, political Islam, at least as first used by academics, referred to a very broad and ill-defined notion that activist groups could organize around a civilizational sense of belonging based in Islamic history, and work with existing political processes to incorporate Islamic normative principles as motivational directives in the political making process. Unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, when social scientists used the expression “Islamic fundamentalists” or simply “Islamic groups,” “political Islam” was not necessarily restricted to the dogmatic cause of establishing an Islamic state ruled by a divine code of law. Political Islam movements were not necessarily committed to militancy or terror tactics in pursuit of their causes. Rather, they ranged widely from puritanical movements that saw themselves as God’s exclusive agents in enforcing a presumed Divine Will, to more moderated and sophisticated nuances that dealt with Islam as a civilizational identity or as a normative ethical frame of reference.
But why is Saudi Arabia so hostile to political Islam movements such as Hamas, Hizbullah, or the Muslim Brotherhood? The reason is that, although Saudi Arabia was built upon an alliance between Al Saud and the fanatic Wahhabi sect, in the past twenty years the ruling elite in Saudi Arabia has tended to be increasingly Westernized and secular. Wahhabism is often treated as if this theology is good enough for the laity and the common people, but it in no way cramps the style of the elites of Riyadh.
In my visits to Saudi Arabia, I saw this first hand in the way that the ruling elite lives their private lives. When prompted, they would often reply that Wahhabism, or the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, is important to protect common people from the dangers of speculative ideas and corrupt influences, but business and politics should be left in the hands of the cultured aristocracy. But more importantly, Wahhabism is an extremely useful theology for the power elite. Wahhabism focuses its entire attention on correct performance of ritualistic practices, the snuffing out of heresy and social innovations, and the preservation of a strictly patriarchal society. All matters involving foreign politics, constitutionalism, or national security are branded as al-siyasa al-shar’iyya (public policy or administrative and executive considerations) and left to the sole discretion of the ruler.
To put it simply, in Wahhabi thought, it is far more important for a Muslim man to correctly grow his beard, or for a Muslim woman to don the veil than to have any kind of opinion about the invasions of Iraq, Gaza, or the fate of Jerusalem. It is not an exaggeration to say that the United States realized, just like Britain before it – and even the Al Saud clan had discovered much earlier – that this kind of Islam is invaluable as a conservative legitimating agent for imperialist and neo-colonial interests in the Muslim world.
One need only recall that Wahhabi Saudi jurists issued a fatwa that it was a grave sin to join demonstrations seeking the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, but it was not a sin to overthrow the elected President Morsi. It speaks volumes that during the height of the slaughter in Gaza, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh and the influential Saudi cleric Saleh al-Luhaidan issued fatwas declaring demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza are haram (religiously forbidden). Both clerics advised Muslims to pray for the people of Gaza instead.
As a direct result of this new world system of thought, Israel launched military campaigns against the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005, the purpose of which was to force the occupied territories to abandon the project of an independent Palestinian state.
Throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century, Israel expanded its illegal settlements in the West Bank and divided the Palestinians territories into ghettoized sections carved up by isolating walls. The election of Hamas into power in 2006 was extremely frustrating because it represented the stubborn persistence of ideological orientations that refused to accept the paradigm of the new world order. Using a number of different excuses, Israel enforced a deadly total land, sea and air blockade against Gaza in 2007, and bombed and pummelled Gaza again, from the air, land and sea in 2006, 2007, 2008-09, 2012 and 2014.
Most critically, the Arab Spring, which started in 2010, could have turned everything on its head. For the first time in a long time, the masses were insisting on reclaiming their own rights to self-determination and creating modern institutions where governments would become accountable to its people instead of the opposite. Most importantly, the asserting of their own autonomy and directing the fate of their countries would have meant an end to traditional dynamics between Arab elites and their former colonizers. If power truly moved into the hands of the people, then institutionalizing systems of accountability, transparency, fair process and integrity in conducting the financial and political affairs of the country would necessarily have meant the end of the proxy system of servitude.
Nothing has served the interests of the former colonizing powers in the Middle East as much as the military governments who, if not supported by a solid civic society and economic institutions, became political proxies doing what they are told. Militaries in the Third World have a very long tradition of dealing in giving orders and receiving orders. They will act as an executive interest for any party able to provide them with their material needs and privileges, and in turn, any segment of society that relies on the military for its safety, security, or livelihood is expected to be in the service of the military.
The other group that has been no less servile to the interests of their ex-colonizers are tribal rulers, who were turned by virtue of their loyal services to European colonialism into kings and princesses, dealing with their countries as if fiefdoms granted by their colonial lords for services well-rendered.
The Arab Spring was so pivotal because it promised to write a new history for the region – a history in which Israel would no longer be the only regional democracy, and the area would bustle with practices that, like exposure to the air and light, would eventually dry up corruption and kill it off. It was also important because it offered a real opportunity to challenge all of the Islamophobic and racist rhetoric that flooded every corner of the world, and to demonstrate that the real ideological issues that concern contemporary Muslims are the challenges of democracy, economic justice, fair opportunity and dignity to the individual. In fact, it promised to overcome the destructive divide between religiously motivated Palestinians and more secularly oriented branches, such as the PLO.
Moreover, the Arab Spring even promised to affect a reconciliation between Arabs and Turks who had been at opposite ends since World War I. The animosity between Arabs and Turks was achieved at the instigation and active participation of British colonialism, and has had a devastating impact upon the fate of the whole region and the Muslim world. Instead of the political Islam of al-Azhar and the Saudi muftis, which is pedantic, apologetic, intellectually oppressive and demeaning, the political Islam project could have become closer to what some have called a system of secularity (as opposed to secularism) modelled after the Turkish experience.
For all of these reasons, the Arab Spring had to fail, and unfortunately, in a region so penetrated and infiltrated as the Middle East, it was not difficult to find proxy agents willing to do someone’s bidding. This is the nature of the game of nations, but how and why the Arab Spring was so effectively aborted is a history that needs to be carefully studied and analyzed. For now, one can sum up this tragic story as follows.
Saudi Arabia aggressively intervened in Yemen and Bahrain, turning these revolutions into sectarianized conflicts. Hizbullah made a disastrous decision to back up the Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, and this turned the conflict into something of a civil war. Saudi Arabia, with the assistance of others, launched ISIS to undermine the influence of Iran in Iraq, and of course, the UAE and Saudi Arabia helped the Egyptian army overthrow the elected government of Morsi. With every passing week, it became ever more clear that this was but a craftily orchestrated abortive effort carried out by the proxy states in the region to neutralize and frustrate all of the nervous energy, aspirational excitement and ideological fervour that the Arab Spring had generated.
It reached the point of obscenity when Egypt and its allies tried to destabilize the revolutionary governments of Libya and Tunisia. Thus far, Sisi has failed to entice the Tunisian military to overthrow the elected government of Tunisia, but did succeed in instigating a bloody war between a retired general named Khalifa Haftar, and the revolutionary forces of Libya. Sisi armed and aided Haftar, conspiring with him to overthrow the Islamists in Libya. Very recently Haftar’s forces were routed in battle, which compelled the Egyptian government to threaten direct military action in Libya, and urged the West to intervene to preempt what it described as the dangerous situation in Libya.
So why was another assault on Gaza inevitable after the coup in Egypt? For the same reason that the Egyptian army massacred thousands of protestors in Rab’a al-Adawiyya mosque, and sentenced hundreds to death in sham trials. It is also the same reason that Egyptian courts banned the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas as terrorist organizations, and imprisoned most of the symbols of the 25 January 2011 revolution. It is also the same reason that the Egyptian media has become as a mere replica of Fox News repeating the same hateful verbiage about all forms of political Islamic activism, but is silent about the oppressiveness of Wahhabism or the obscenities committed in Mecca and Medina. Moreover, it is also the same reason that the Arab response to this latest round of atrocities in Gaza was nearly silent if not complicit.
After the return of what is in effect the Mubarak regime in Egypt, Israel knew that the momentum had been fully regained by the anti-ideological, tri-alliance in the Arab world – namely, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But this time, there are many indicators that Israel embarked upon this round of slaughter with the knowledge and acquiescence of these countries.
Israel wants Gaza ruled by a compliant Palestinian authority that rules over the occupied territories in a fashion that is consistent with Israel’s strategic goals. In other words, Israel wants an authority that keeps the Palestinians in check and that promotes a weak and non-intrusive form of Palestinian nationalism – an authority that will do nothing but protest meekly as Israel builds settlements and demolishes homes in the occupied territories.
It is very telling that the shortest and least destructive rampage against Gaza was that of 2012, and this is for the simple reason that Israel realized very quickly that prolonging the conflict could further ignite nationalistic and religious ideologies at a time that the Egyptian revolution had not yet been defeated. In contrast, the 2014 assault has been the most destructive and demoralizing because Egypt locked the border with Gaza, allowed very little humanitarian aid to enter, and refused to permit even the critically injured Palestinians to be treated in Egyptian hospitals. The inhumanity and brutality of Egypt’s policies at the Rafah crossing in this conflict has been unprecedented and without parallel.
Ostensibly, this latest conflict started when three Israeli teenagers were murdered in what we now know was an incident having nothing to do with Hamas. But at the time, the Israeli forces went on a rampage through the West Bank arresting hundreds, demolishing houses and killing a number of Palestinians. This was followed by the abduction and grisly burning to death of sixteen-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and the beating and injuring of Tariq Abu Khdeir, his American cousin. Although these events hardly constituted sufficient cause for ordering the bombing of Gaza, I believed Netanyahu was waiting for an opportunity – any opportunity. So Gaza was bombed, and the rockets were fired at Israel or its settlements in retaliation.
The destruction heaped upon the people of Gaza was not only disproportionate or excessive, but obscene. Israel destroyed over a hundred mosques, forty thousand homes, over a hundred factories (including milk factories), over a hundred schools, universities, hospitals, electricity stations and the entire infrastructure of Gaza. It was a scorched earth, mowing the land, unrestrained warfare of biblical proportions. Even the UN schools sheltering refugees were bombed numerous times. The Israeli media is abuzz with genocidal language vis-a-vis the Gazans if they do not agree to disarm (for instance, the genocidal plot proposed by Moshe Feiglin, Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Knesset and member of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party) and are already talking about the plans for the next go around in Gaza!
Israel has violated every international law in the books. Israel engaged in collective punitive measures and targeted civilians, especially children. It has violated the rule of proportionality and discrimination, blockaded occupied territory, and then denied an occupied people the right to self-determination and the right to self-defence.
But this is precisely the point. Seen from the paradigm of the Bush administration’s principle of the victor’s rights, Israel would simply wave away all this international law as unfair, irrelevant and non-applicable. Why? The answer is provided by the Israeli media, which often cites the atomic bombs dropped on Japan and the carpet-bombing of Berlin as illustrative examples. As the argument goes, Japan and Germany would not come to their senses and realize that they have been vanquished once and for all, until the allies used such overwhelming power against them that they would come to terms with their own defeat. Add to this Netanyahu’s racist thesis of “telegenically dead Palestinians” and you have the makings for a perfect storm.
This reminds us once again that there are arguments that no ethical person should ever dare to entertain. Moral people should never objectify and dehumanize the other to the point that the sight of children hurt and crying no longer affects them. Decent people should recall that the logic of considering an entire people guilty because they live in a particular place or under this or that ruler or government, compromises the humanity of that entire people. Terrorists who target Americans or Israelis use the same precise reasoning – those people chose the criminal Netanyahu or Sharon or Bush and, therefore, no one is innocent.
Moreover, in my view, the most dehumanizing, objectifying and racist argument of all is trying to justify the killing of children by arguing that the other side uses their own people as human shields. The remarkable thing is that this same argument has been used by every colonial power when it slaughtered natives; it was used by every oppressive government when it butchered the families of dissenters (it was used by Egypt in the Rab’a al-Adawiyya massacre, for instance); and it was used in every act of savagery and butchery because it is impossible to verify and the weak party can never refute it. In the end, it boils down to a racist attitude effectively saying: Those people are not like us! We love and protect our children and they sacrifice their children because they are inhumane, crazy, and cowardly.
Israel wants to destroy Hamas because Israel wants to continue controlling the fate of Palestinians, neutralizing their nationalism and ideological foundations, and breaking their will to resist. Israel’s Arab allies want the destruction of Hamas because they want to end all systems of thought that contribute to ideological aspirations or empowerment, which might destabilize their power base. Of course, Gaza is not Hamas, and Hamas is not Gaza. But, because the Arab governments have learned nothing from the revolutions of 2011, it is only a matter of time before agitating ideologies will come back, but I fear that they will come back more angry, distrustful and hateful.
I will close this article – and in truth, my act of bearing witness – by borrowing a phrase from John Mearsheimer: “the tragedy of great power.” The reality is that Israel, which has the fourth strongest army in the world and has a full arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, is a great power. As critical as the Holocaust was and still is in the rise of the entire edifice of human rights norms, Israel suffers the psychology of great power.
The real tragedy of great power is that it is fundamentally at odds with ethical conscientiousness and judgment. Don’t get me wrong, “great power” will consider normative values, will engage in moral discourses and will reflect upon ethics, but it is invariably and persistently self-indulgent and self-serving. Great power will idolize itself, and demand obedience from whoever falls within its sphere. It will reflect on ethics, but ultimately will always reach the conclusion that whatever it does or decides is indeed ethical, and that all who are less powerful must sublimate and praise its virtues. And the highest form of sublimation is obedience. The tragedy of Israel’s great power is that it has lost the ability to be restrained or proportionate. In other words, it has lost the self-critical insight and restraint needed for reasonableness.
I believe that the first principle of ethics is to pursue goodness and resist evil, but the second principle is to speak the truth of goodness and the shame of evil to great power. It is due time that we recognize that the critical premise of all moral acts is reasonableness, and that when great power acts unreasonably, great evil unfolds. Whatever the religion, nationality, ethnicity or race of this great power, the human suffering is always the same.
Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law and Chair of the Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program at UCLA. He is the author of many books on Islam and Islamic law, including The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists and The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books. His magnum opus, Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari’ah in the Modern Age, will be published later this year.